Thursday, August 15, 2019

How to Pack for a Writing Session

Some years back, you found the short story from Richard Bausch,a writer you've subsequently read more of, bought some of his collections, even reached to point of following him on Facebook because of his one- and two-paragraph essays about the writing craft.

Most of those essays-in-miniature strike some chord of recognition within you. Generous, patient, revealing, the essays in many ways demonstrate the themes and conditions in Bausch's writing. The biggest take-away of all is the satisfaction you get from these short paragraphs and the longer, more layered texture of his stories.

Reminds you how important for you to come away from a finished work with the sense of having shared some eavesdrop of the various aspects of you, brought to life from your interior to the status of realized characters in a story.

Bausch helps you to expand on your own sense of the multiple aspects of yourself dwelling with in, wanting their time to be heard or at the least recognized. You do so when you are at work on a new narrative and when you are seeking a way to give voice to a concept buzzing about as though it were a female mosquito and you had Type O as your blood type, human Type O being the fave snack of the female mosquito.

You begin with a kind of Twelve-Step meeting in which aspects of you come forth to introduce themselves and defend or tell the truth about some quality inherent in them that provides a visa for them into your story.  You rather like this because you can hear those dissident aspects of yourself calling out bullshit on their defense mechanisms, their excuses, their justifications.

You've also given a nod to your love of the theater by issuing casting calls, individuals interested in appearing in the drama to be built about a concept that intrigues you but which is not often clear to you. In this setting, everyone wants the lead role. Reminds you of your pre-teen student days, eager to not only supply the correct answer but as well supply supplementary information. Yes, some of your characters want to bring in more than a backstory; they wish to bring in the entire narrative, then serve as set director as well.

Many of the writers you admire produce a prose of near invisibility, taking you to the greater depths of the story, leaving you to consider other possible nuances as you chew over the emotional impact that has been bestowed upon you. 

You aspire to that invisibility. In consequence, your reading has suffered and your own writing has had to learn the newer reality of what comprises a day's work. Not all that long ago, you were thinking of a day's work in terms of words put on paper--as though that were some literary equivalent of sir Edmund Hillary's ascent--or keepable pages, both reflecting a word length rather than a word value. More often than not, the work itself reflected this vision.

As you learned earlier today, a work session involves mere sentences. You'd not wish to write an essay that required footnotes. In similar fashion, you're wary of fiction in which the narrative is overburdened with details, descriptions, and, alas, distractions.

A narrative--any narrative--does not require all that many modifiers. You still recall Graham Greene's autobiographical regret for having used one adverb: She smiled sadly. A narrative requires notional, driven individuals, following a story, which leads then into a rabbit hole from which they now struggle to escape.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019


You were governed by two opposing forces, early in the years you'd cast your lot as a writer. Those forces were--and still are--enthusiasm and impatience. You ached for the skills you saw in the writers whose work you admired; you were eager to do the equivalent of daily practice by writing. Sometimes you managed two stories a day. Other times, there was at least something to show for your efforts.

At one point, a person you admired spoke of you as being prolific, a word you well understood but did not see in connection with yourself. Ah, the callowness of your youth. You were some years learning how important revision was.

True enough, you were suspicious of things that were dashed off, first or second draft, but by then, you had a mentor, who published a short story with the title, "The Next, the New, the Promised," which became an early mantra, proof that some mantras are wrong. You later learned that a mantra was best conferred by a teacher who had herself or himself achieved a union with Brahman, at least once. At the time, the best you could do was equate having been published with the notion of a teacher having achieved Brahman.

Your eagerness for the life of the writer has not diminished. It has changed, as all characters in story must and as most persons in Life must. Without knowing so at the time, you were impatient for what and who you are now. You would do any number of things that now seem unnecessary or not productive in order to achieve the simple--or so you thought--state of being able to support yourself from writing.

Some of those things included writing a novel a month, which did not always pay the rent. This meant you had to write short stories and articles for magazines as well, all the while hearing those close about you wondering aloud when you were going to get serious. What they probably meant by getting serious meant writing novels, short stories, and essays that paid big bucks, appeared in top-rank publisher's lists and magazines. 

Some form of awareness sank in when you factored revision into the equation of producing an endless stream of material. The net effect was to slow the output.

When you look at things you did in the past, you often see things you are not as appalled by as you might suppose. The opening and closing pages of a novel published when you were a scant thirty years old remind you of the vision you had, even though you were not always able to see it.

The thing to be learned cannot be forced by enthusiasm or impatience. The thing to be learned must come from a regular application of words onto some medium, where you can see them clearly enough to be embarrassed by them and want to do something to them that will remove the embarrassment.

A few years from now, the things that you wrote in recent days or months may not embarrass you, although there is every chance they will.  Early last week, an editor, speaking of a short story you'd submitted, offered you the choice of including it in a journal or publishing it as a stand-alone. You chose the stand-alone. You also believe it is the best short story you've yet produced. But even so, you're already at work on the equivalent narrative of an actor who has just been given two awards, each for work he has little affection for.

The thing to be learned at this stage of your game is that you've chosen something to do that is nearly impossible for you to do well enough for your lasting satisfaction. You are eager to find something that is, and impatient to get on with it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Inertia of the Cosmos

Let's start with the basics:

You are a witness.

You see things...or you don't. No matter. The things that happen will happen whether you see them or not. Although you may cause some things to happen, mostly you are an observer, a ticket-holder to the theater of the known and beyond Universe.

In side effect, you may buy some popcorn, take a quick trip to the loo for a whizz. But you are in large measure a spectator. Nice as it would be to think so at times, the known and unknown Universes do not revolve about you, your tides, or whims.

Things happen or they don't.  You may even understand why some things happen or, as the matter happens, do not.  No matter. Things will happen or not happen on levels of subtext and sophistication well beyond your ken. You are, as noted, a witness, not a catalyst.

No matter how familiar you are with, say, Ohm's Law; when you plug an appliance into an electric outlet, more often than not the appliance will become operational. An appliance doesn't "work," you take it to a person who repairs such things or you replace the appliance. In the long run, the appliance is a given device that enhances your status as a witness.

Control involves a number of things in which you have limited interest or none at all. You find enough responsibility called for in being a witness, taking time here and there to record your observations of what you've seen.

Other witnesses may well view the same phenomena as you, record their own observations, then, as a consequence, find themselves appointed to endowed chairs at some university, where they may instruct others to observe and record. Their observations may achieve note in The New York Times Book Review as a best seller.

As a result of such observations of others, you may find yourself engaged in a process known as envy. Surprisingly, this observation produces a process only the Germans could manage to fit into one word, schadenfreude.  Pleasure at the discomfort of others. These individuals now have responsibilities, real and imagined, to burden themselves and their future activities.

These responsibilities are among the things you shed or never had in the first place, sometimes, truth to tell, unwillingly, but nevertheless shed.You did so in order to become as independent an observer as possible.

You go forth with no appointments to endowed chairs, your published works appearing like a sudden downpour over the New Mexico desert, eagerly soaked up by thirsty sand. You do so in full awareness that any schadenfreude you experience may well be the schadenfreude at your own expense. Couple of years at an endowed chair might not be all that bad. Couple of royalty checks in five or six figures might not take you away from your appointed task.

Whod'a thought you, at your stage of the game, would find himself in what is called in some circles a learning curve? Not you. Thus your basic awareness that The Cosmos has a sense of humor, the procession of events or their refusal to become events now informing much of what you see about you, as you continue to observe and attempt to learn something from the things you see happening and from the things you see that do not happen.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Telling It Like It Is

The most common mistake made by storytellers at all levels of ability has one, if not the most simple, solution.

The mistake is the "tell," the infraction made famous by its position in the mantra "Show, don't tell."

Most sentences in stories that begin with "It" are tells. It was cold. It was dark. It was late. Sentences that begin with "It" serve as illustrations of the problem and the source of the problem.

The problem, known among veteran fiction editors as "authorial intervention" or "AI," centers on the writer's choice to intervene with the equivalent of a stage direction, those scenery- and setting-related notes found in stage plays and screenplays.

The solution to the "It" problem is to filter the information, the coldness, darkness, and lateness of the previous examples through the senses of the individual from whose point-of-view the scene plays forth. Here's Mary to demonstrate the "It" situations. 

Mary buttoned her jacket against the cold.  Mary wished she'd worn more substantial clothing.

Notice how, in the first example, Mary feels the cold, which is no longer told, is in fact demonstrated. In the second example, Mary shows her abilities by reacting to the cold without so much as a direct mention of it.

Here's Fred to perform dark for us.

Fred stumbled on a rut in the road he hadn't seen in the darkness.  Once he entered the cellar, Fred needed to use the flashlight on his cellphone to locate the light switch.

In the first example, Fred stumbles as a direct consequence of the darkness. Next sentence shows Fred using some ingenuity to find a light switch that either will or will not make the cellar easier to navigate. Even if the light switch doesn't provide useful light, Fred still has a source available to deal with the darkness. Note how the darkness was present in the second sentence without being named by Fred or the writer.

Mary did so well her last time out, let's see how she does with "late."

Already aware she was reaching the limits of acceptable lateness, Mary boarded the bus without checking to see if it was the right one.  Now she'd have to suffer the consequences of a father who valued promptness more than anything else.

These examples of cold, dark, and late all bring in other information, which comes through the filter of the character. Note the absence of authorial presence.

Some--but by no means all--added examples of tells:

She was glad.                                         He would never do such a thing.
He resented the implication.             She yearned for a job like that.
She was willing to share.                    He felt betrayed.
He wanted all of it for himself.          He envied Fred.
She decided not to accept.                  She felt uncomfortable, compromised.

All these examples, potentially valid, can be brought out of the sidelines of stage direction and transferred into story points.  

Consider these:  Story is dramatic action rather than expository description. Each of the recent examples describes an action.

There are three basic actions in story: (1) Narrative, which is a choice of verbs to portray movement (2) Interior Monologue, which is the internal conversation the character has while performing (3) Dialogue, which is what the character says to other characters, often in modified or direct contrast to what the character wants and believes.

Anything "else" is a stage direction or footnote. 

The "simple" solution to this condition: Move the "else" to 1, 2, or 3.

The "simple" way to accomplish this: (1) Stop writing for the Reader. (2) Start writing for the Characters.

If you write for the Reader, you put yourself in the mode of explaining the story (and you know how you get when others go on about explaining things to you).

If you write for the Characters, you allow the Reader to do the thing they most enjoy--which is to eavesdrop, then form their own conclusions.

Thursday, March 30, 2017


Stories do not come easily. Certainly not the ones you value. Those come as unexpected, even undreamed of gifts, from unexpected sources, for surprising, random reasons.

All stories are gifts from some source of another. The ones you suspect most are those that come from conventional sources, learned sources, where recepie and formula are the watchwords in the same way curriculum and study guides were watchwords for the teachers who taught you  and for the facts you were supposed to absorb and assimilate.

In a real and demonstrable sense, these suspect stories were ones you were at great pains to understand in order to fulfill some social goal that has no relationship to story or to writing. You wanted to know these recipies and formula not nearly so much for fame or fortune as for a sense of being able to engage with others, watch them, team with or oppose them, but at all costs to engage in the social contract with them.

To see yourself liked, chosen for teams, invited to parties, asked to repeat your own last story by someone who'd heard it to someone who did not.

Fifty or sixty years of learning and striving to be chosen. Such years are barriers that require breeching, conventional wisdom to be unlearned, recipies and formulae to be abandoned along the roadside.

Among the many metaphors you recognize for stories is the one in which the abandoned clumps of personal goods were scattered by those brave individuals who rode their Conestoga wagons west, seeking a place beyond the surveyed lots of civilization.

Some gifts, by whim or humorous tradition, are meant to be awful, given for their absolute lack of appropriateness, given as a teasing recognition of grotesque, gothic, useless and absurd functions.

The good stories are the ones you have to work hardest at, beyond the fifty or sixty years of learning.

The good stories come from reaching into an inconvenient corner of an inconvenient place. Finding them, they bring you an outcome and definition you'd not in the least expected. They bring you the awareness that you are composed of them and the abandoned goods you left roadside on your journey West.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Convenient Dog

To convey the sense of a character's inner self at work, dramatists have given us the soliloquy. Many novelists and short story writers have modified this means of conveying inner feelings into the device of interior monologue.

With two or more characters on stage or page, the author has recourse to a wide, creative spectrum of action-related options. With one character on stage or page alone, the options narrow. The author is forced into the head of the character, where the verbs turn from action based into those driven by thought.

Writers, forced by contractual observations to be more observant of deadlines than technique, or seduced by their own sense of cleverness, will on occasion resort to giving a solitary character some pet with whom to have the sort of conversation that does not strike the reader as entirely gratuitous.

You can--and do--say with the authority of emphasis that story is action. It often contains thought, but the story more often than not begins with some action to demonstrate plans to cope with disaster, ambition, and loyalty to a cause.

Characters who discuss their stake in the parameters of the story or, indeed, in comparisons of the animal and human conditions run the risk of being seen as cute.

Dogs and cats appear most often as convenience buddies, beings whose presence in the story has no other purpose than providing a lazy writer with a way out of a dilemma.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger in Town

All stories begin with an incident to shatter the calm of routine. For some time to come, perhaps forever, adios to the ordinary. Bienvenidos to the downward spiral of dramatic events to come. If we have any history of reading fiction, we know some form of disaster and some need for evasive action beckon. Our curiosity and anticipation draw us in.

Many stories begin with an individual--often the protagonist--sent or assigned to an unfamiliar locale, with a stated goal or assignment. Welcome to the stranger in town, one of the two or three basic designs of story.

The stranger in town represents the alien or outsider to the locals, who are wary if not outright suspicious and resentful. To see this dynamic in action, start with the opening paragraphs of Gustave Flaubert's Madam Bovary, where the character of Charles Bovary is first introduced to a classroom of schoolmates. Although not the protagonist, Charles Bovary comes to us as an outsider. In one way or another, he remains marginal and influential to his eventual wife, Emma.

Camille Preaker, protagonist of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, gives yet another version of stranger in town. A regular from a place has left, often for life in another city. Circumstances call her back home, where she's regarded as changed, no longer one of us, her trustworthiness and motives cause for increased suspicion.

The greater a character's deviation from ordinary, the better the character's potential for dramatic immortality. Captain Ahab, far from the protagonist of Moby Dick, nevertheless steals scenes from The Whale and from the intended protagonist, Ishmael. Readers who have yet to experience the pleasures of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, have absorbed through literary osmosis the picture of Becky Sharp as an opportunist. Those yet to read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, still know Scarlett O'Hara's mantra about tomorrow. Shakespeare's Iago resides in infamy as an advocate of treachery, and who among us believes his Sir John Falstaff was ever knighted in actuality.

The Stranger in Town represents the spectrum of marginality or alienness readers understand, often on the level of personal experience. Difficult to concieve of any serious writer who has not felt the separation of being from alien country. The Stranger is the one white in an all-black group, the one black in an all-white, the one white in an otherwise Asian group. To add double jeopardy, imagine a WASP baseball player, fresh off an athletic scholarship to Princeton, one of the most reputed WASP universities, being drafted by a major league baseball team in which most of the starting lineup is from Cuba and Central America.

SIT embodies race, gender, sexual orientation, political, and economic stratification. SIT can be a young girl asking her prehistoric father if she can have a boyfriend over to dinner, and the father hoping the boyfriend is not "on of then Neanderthal sorts." 

What are her true origins? What does she want? Why is she really  here? Nevermind what she tells us, what agenda does she hide?